The first time I listened to this CD with headphones, I nearly fell out of my chair when the second track, “Tell Me That You Love Me” began. I don’t believe I’d ever heard this old song before, although perhaps I’ve heard a Carter Family version of it. It’s an old song, pre-20th century, and was popularized by the Carters. That’s where Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard first heard it. Here, we get to hear them practicing it in one of their homes before a tape recorder, just the two of them singing and one playing guitar, Alice carrying the alto melody and Hazel singing high harmony. The effect on me was devastating, to the point that this song may replace the Carters’ “Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow Tree” as my favorite old-time song.
For you that moment may come from some other of the 19 songs on this collection, but if you love bluegrass and old-time music, it surely will come if you take a listen.
Sing Me Back Home, as you may have guessed, is a compilation of home recordings by Hazel & Alice from the mid to late 1960s, when they were a rarity – a female duo in the nascent bluegrass world.
It begins aptly with this duo’s cover of the Everly Brothers’ huge hit “Bye Bye Love.” The Everlys were at least partially marketed as a rock and roll act, and they inspired everyone from The Beatles to Simon & Garfunkel, but they were started out squarely in the long tradition of brother duos in country music. So it’s apt that this song begins the album both because of Hazel & Alice’s status as outliers in the music world, and because of the inspiration they themselves drew from duos such as the Everlys and especially the Louvins. Probably second only to the inspiration of the Carter Family, who fetch up on the second track that grabbed my attention so forcefully; and speaking of the Louvin Brothers, there they are at track three, represented by a song they recorded in 1949, “Seven Year Blues.” Hazel & Alice apparently learned this one from a Bill Monroe recording or performance; he played quite a bit in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore area where Hazel & Alice lived and played.
There are several other Carter Family covers on the album, and Louvin Brothers, Bill Monroe and Jimmie Rodgers songs as well, but they didn’t confine themselves to the old-time and bluegrass repertoir. That’s evident in the collection’s title Sing Me Back Home taken from the 1967 Merle Haggard song (and his 1968 No. 1 album of the same title). They give it a beautiful old-time vocal arrangement, and accompany themselves on autoharp (Alice) and guitar. There’s also a Dolly Parton song, her 1968 single “In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad),” which, coincidentally, Haggard also covered on his smash *Mama Tried* album.
“We were always looking for material,” Alice Gerrard says. “It was wide open and we were willing to try anything.” That quote comes from the excellent liner notes, which has a good overview of the duo’s history and thorough notes on individual songs, many of them attributed to Gerrard (Dickens died in 2011).
These performances are mostly or entirely rehearsals, so they come complete with stops and starts and side comments, throat-clearings, etc. And of course they’re not studio quality. But they’re priceless.
(Free Dirt, 2018)